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City Council, June 17

Chief Thomas says farewell
Preservation Plan, Long Savannah and CARTA budget
Marc Knapp

Chief Rusty Thomas received a standing ovation last night. He and four other long standing members of the City administration, who were retiring, were honored at the City Council meeting. The Mayor spoke eloquently and passionately about the service rendered by the staff members. But predictably, his comments relating to the Fire Chief were the most passionate.

Acclaimed by the Mayor
The Mayor noted that Chief Thomas was the third generation of a family that had served in the City's Fire Department. He was an “outstanding role model”, “selfless volunteer”, “a treasure to the community”, and “respected by all citizens”, a “quintessential public servant”. He wanted to “serve the people and the City of Charleston”. “It is not the badge that counts of what is behind the badge, his heart!

Chief responds with emotion
Chief Thomas, struggling to hold back the tears, responded with a simple and heartfelt speech. He was not happy, but his good nature showed through and something melted in all of us listening. Sometimes the words had difficulty coming, not because he could not find them, but because his throat was tight with emotion. He thanked the Mayor, the Council, and the City of Charleston. He praised the employees of the City and commented on the strong working relationships he enjoyed. He always wanted to be firefighter and was hired by the City thirty two years ago. He had no aspirations to be the Chief. “I loved what I did”. “I don't know what I'm going to do now. Looking at his wife, “I can’t stay home”!

“I gave it all I had”, he concluded.

Outstanding as a man, but not as a Fire Chief
All four of the City retirees last night received standing ovations. Indeed, standing ovations are common place in City Council meetings, given to outstanding City staff, successful basket ball teams and others. We often questioned such adulation for what we perceived as modest achievement. Such outpourings lessen the currency of standing ovations for the truly deserving. And as a man, Rusty Thomas was outstanding; he deserved the acclaim he received. But as the Fire Department Chief, he did not.

Bravado and bonhomie don’t necessarily make for a great leader. And as a leader of the City’s Fire Department, Rusty Thomas failed. This is an opinion not only of ours, but of the independent investigators of the Sofa Super Store fire. Today is the first anniversary of this tragic event that will forever linger over the City’s Fire Department.

Who should bear the responsibility?
We have no doubt that Rusty Thomas, and the Mayor will be forever tortured by the fire. Rusty Thomas was the head of the Fire Department and bore the responsibility of its management and performance. He and his department were described by the Mayor as the greatest in America. Clearly they weren’t. And after the best part of year, the Chief ultimately recognized his responsibility and resigned.

But doesn’t the Mayor bear perhaps even more responsibility? We don’t claim to know Rusty Thomas well. But we would bet that his character has changed little over the 30 years. His heart may be broken over the tragic loss of his firefighters but outwardly he maintains that same openness and good nature that has endeared him to citizens. But these qualities, although admirable, are not enough.

As the Administrator of the City, the Mayor should have been asking hard questions about the Fire Department and its leadership. Maybe the Mayor did ask the questions but never chose to question the answers. A successful manager never lets his personal feeling about an individual overwhelm a decision. If a manager is lacking, he should be replaced. Serving 32 years under Mayor Riley, the shortcomings of Rusty Thomas and the Fire Department ought to have been apparent to the Mayor. It sits badly on the Mayor that he did not ask the questions, or chose not to act on the answers.

An ex firefighter questions personnel transfers
Richard Koger, a retired member of the City’s Fire Department was not daunted by the speeches of the Mayor and Chief Thomas. He rose in Citizens Participation, as he often has, to question the Mayor about the Fire Department. He was “confused”. The Mayor and Chief Thomas had always declared an “open door” policy in regard to Fire Department members. He referred to the decision, a week or so again, relating to management changes and transfers within the department. A number of firefighters were seeking some explanation as to why they were being transferred. They were getting no response.

Readers of the Post and Courier will recall that about two weeks or so ago, there was a confrontation between the Mayor and Council member Gallant in relation to these changes. Mayor Riley said that the changes have been in the works for some months and have been approved by an independent committee.

Preservation Plan, the UGB and Long Savannah
The major part of yesterday's meeting was taken up the discussions on the City's new Preservation Plan, the movement of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) and the approval of the Long Savannah Development which now includes the undeveloped stage of the Village Green Project.

Preservation Plan approved
The creation of the new Preservation Plan began late last year and was completed about a month or so ago. The Plan is on the City's web site and is heavy reading. We view the new plan as for the better. But as Council member Mitchell said, it really is a guide for the shaping of future ordinances. One of the important changes in our view is to split the City into a number of areas, each with specific preservation codes. The will also look to residents of these areas in developing the specific codes.

Second readings for change in UGB, and Long Savannah
The movement of the City's UGB is allied to the annexation and approval of the Long Savannah Development. A major part of the proposed development was in the unincorporated part of the county. The movement of the UGB was necessary to bring the development within the urban side of the boundary.

Much has already been written and said about the Long Savannah Development, which now includes the undeveloped part of the Village Green project. The first reading in relation to the Long Savannah was given on November 27 last year and the Village Green incorporation on April 8 this year.

Developed within “new urbanism” concept
The development will be very large and on a scale comparable with that of Daniel Island. It will encompass some 6000 housing units as well as commercial and retail structures. In concept it will conform to “new urbanism” with a town center or urban zone. And indeed, looking at the documents submitted to Council, the development should look very attractive. One picture has a church looking very much like St Michaels surrounded by attractive Georgian style buildings. But these were only conceptual plans. Reality may be less appealing.

The development will not be lacking in green space. The half-cent sales tax monies marked for greenbelt creation has been used to buy land from the developer for the creation of parks – 200 acres for a City Park and 1600 acres for a County Park.

Potential traffic problems
Council was very supportive of the project though Council members Shirley and Alexander spoke of potential traffic problems. So did some members of the public who noted the extreme congestion on the Glenn McConnell and the Bees Ferry Road. This congestion will only be exacerbated by the development.

Staff and company spokespersons said that the development will be stretched over 20 years or so and besides, there will be a number of access points to the highways so crowding or bottlenecks at intersections should not occur. The developers were also contributing $8 million each to the extension of Glenn McConnell and $2.5 million to Bear Swamp Road improvements

The City also noted that it would have to acquire the Rights of Way for the road extensions. No estimates we given as to the cost.

CARTA Budget – up 20% in 2009
The 2009 CARTA budget was submitted to Council last night. We have not yet had a chance to analyze it. But some of the high lights:

• It is a balanced budget. Revenue and expenses are projected to reach be $21.5 million, up from $17.8 million in fiscal 2008.

• The major part of the increase in expenses relates to higher fuel costs ($1 million) and higher service on fixed routes – park and ride ($1.6 million)

• Fare increase of 20% across the board